Ask Why Not A President Obama and Kennedy Comparison? A 50th Anniversary Thought on JFK's 1961 Inaugural Address
Today, President Obama spoke about the legacy of John F. Kennedy on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's inaugural. In the updated 2008 preface to my book, "The Kennedys: America's Emerald Kings," I addressed the links between Obama and Kennedy's presidencies, particularly as "outsiders" elected to the nation's highest office.
"Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that immigrants were America. " —historian Oscar Handlin (as quoted by John F. Kennedy in A Nation of Immigrants)
The 2008 presidential campaign offered many reminders for Sen. Edward Kennedy of the barriers his brother faced in 1960, becoming the first and only U.S. president from a minority background. With a sign from Dunganstown, Ireland hanging in his Senate office, a reminder of the famine-ravished farm where his ancestors began, Ted always seemed to understand that the Kennedys were perhaps America’s greatest immigrant story -- overcoming religious, ethnic and cultural barriers to reach once unimaginable heights.
“My brother Jack wrote ‘A Nation of Immigrants’ in 1958, and his words ring true as clearly today as they did half a century ago,” said Ted, a few months before he was struck with a malignant brain tumor. “I’m constantly reminded of my immigrant heritage.” Indeed, the Kennedys’ vision of “A Nation of Immigrants” had transformed America forever.
Throughout 2008, presidential candidates from various minority backgrounds invoked the Kennedy name as a constant touchstone. The first major female candidate for president, Sen. Hillary Clinton, drew endorsements from Robert Kennedy's children, including Kathleen and Bobby Jr. The first major candidate from a Hispanic background, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, echoed JFK in proclaiming, “We are a nation of immigrants.'' In a speech to allay concerns about his Mormon religion, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney harkened back to JFK’s famous 1960 speech before the Houston ministers, when many were fearful of a Catholic in the White House. Most notably, Barack Obama, the U.S. Senator from Illinois, possessed a style and dignity particularly reminiscent of the Kennedy era. "People always tell me how my father inspired them,” said JFK’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy, in her endorsement. “I feel that same excitement now. Barack Obama can lift America and make us one nation again." At a key moment in the primary campaign, Ted Kennedy publicly supported Obama who, in turn, said the Kennedy family always stood for “what is best about America”. Obama’s campaign faced many similar tests that Kennedy endured in 1960 as the first and only Roman Catholic elected to the presidency. As a minority, born to black and white parents, Obama had to overcome codes words and subtle biases historically applied to African-Americans. Like Catholic hard-liners who complained that Kennedy wasn’t “Catholic enough” in 1960, Obama was sometimes criticized within the black community for not seeming “black enough” in 2008. And yet when the media made it seem Obama had been attacked for his minority status, African-Americans rallied to his support, just as Catholics did in 1960 for Kennedy. Ted Kennedy’s dramatic embrace of Obama’s candidacy carried a powerful symbolism, one of the last significant acts of his distinguished career before he fell ill.
The Kennedy’s legacy from a minority background demands a greater understanding of the cultural forces that they both represented and overcame. From today’s perspective, it is increasingly clear that John F. Kennedy was the Jackie Robinson of American politics, paving a way for presidential candidates from other minority backgrounds. For future generations, the transcendent appeal of JFK’s 1960 success meant that other discounted Americans could possibly overcome the hurdles of ethnicity, race, religion and sex. As this book recounts, the religious bigotry Kennedy faced in 1960 could have easily embittered a candidate with less personal grace and less awareness of this nation’s history. But JFK’s idealistic belief in America’s greatness was clearly stated in, A Nation of Immigrants, which reflected so much of his family’s story. The essence of this little known, little-studied book became the 1965 Immigration Reform Act, which ended the discriminatory preference given to white Europeans and opened the door to millions from Latin America, Asia, Africa and around the world. First proposed by JFK in July 1963, a few months before his assassination, the bill was passed in his memory, pushed by his two brothers in the U.S. Senate. No law in our lifetime has done more to change America and is arguably the Kennedy family’s most lasting legacy to our country.
This book takes a new look at the Kennedy saga over five generations, exploring the impact of religion, race and cultural identity on their public and private lives. Too often, previous historians ignored these powerful forces and portrayed JFK as a Harvard-educated Anglophile, the perfect specimen of a secular, assimilist “melting pot” view of American history. As a result, dozens of Kennedy books routinely ignored, or gave only a passing nod, to the underlying forces of ethnicity and religion that so often influenced the Kennedy family’s actions and outlook. In death, JFK’s reign was lionized as “Camelot” by his widow and those who grieved. But a comparison to British royalty hardly seems proper for the great-grandson of an Irish migrant worker who fled from Dunganstown, County Wexford farm during the Great Famine. Only with the passage of time, and the recent availability of many personal documents at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, does a more complete and accurate portrait emerge. In re-examining the record, we gain a fresh understanding into the Kennedy family’s sense of their own immigrant heritage, their epic encounters with religious bigotry, and how the complex dynamics of their family life reflected the Irish Catholic experience in America. From Patrick and Bridget Kennedy fleeing famine-stricken Ireland among the great wave of emigrants in the 1840s, to efforts by Ted Kennedy and his sister, U.S. Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, to bring peace in the 1990s to their ancestral homeland, their sense of being Irish, of being Catholic, and of being members of a family coming from an often oppressed immigrant minority—indeed the very Irish notion of a Kennedy clan, as they often referred to themselves—carried through from one generation to the next.
Though this book is not intended as a policy analysis, it is nevertheless striking how much of the Kennedy family’s cultural background played a role in such issues as civil rights, Vietnam, poverty, immigration, terrorism and the fight against communism. Certainly, the Kennedy relationship with the Roman Catholic Church was far more extensive than the public perceived of the 1960 presidential candidate, elected as he was by vowing a strict separation between church and state. Private letters illustrate the family’s deep political and financial ties to the church, both in America and with the Pope’s right-hand man at the Vatican. These documents detail Joe Kennedy’s secret dealings between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the future Pope Pius XII, why he felt that FDR harbored a bias against Catholics like himself, and how the Kennedys battled behind the scenes with the church’s hierarchy during JFK’s historic presidential campaign. Joe Kennedy’s decades-long friendship with the suave, discreet Vatican administrator, Count Enrico Galeazzi, offers a fascinating venue into the Kennedy family’s influence in Rome. Their correspondence during the 1960 presidential campaign provides a running commentary on the family’s frustration with anti-Catholic bigotry and anger with the conservative bishops in their own church—something the Kennedys dared not show to the American public.
We also gain new understanding into the personal side of the Kennedys, the often profound and pervasive impact of their cultural background beyond the sheer exercise of power and money. Volumes of family documents—from typed formal correspondences to the handwritten comments on funeral Mass cards, or scribbled St. Patrick’s Day greetings—reveal their struggles with faith after so many tragedies, their difficulties in overcoming anti-Semitism and race, and reconciling matters of marriage and sex within the church’s teachings. We learn of figures such as Jesuit priest Richard McSorley, who spoke for the first time about Jacqueline Kennedy’s depression and thoughts of committing suicide in the wake of her husband’s 1963 assassination. In a typical Kennedyesque setting (while playing tennis in Bobby and Ethel’s Hickory Hill backyard), Father McSorley advised and comforted Jackie as she wondered aloud about a God who would claim the lives of her husband and their infant son, Patrick, within a few tragic months. We get a much more realistic picture of the traumatic impact of these events on the widowed first lady, who appeared silent and stoic to the American public from behind her black veil.
This book focuses on what JFK called the “emerald thread” between two nations—for so much about the Kennedys in America can be understood and appreciated only by first studying what happened to them in Ireland. Interviews and documents detail the Kennedys’ long involvement in the quest for Ireland’s independence, including how some family members in Ireland were tied to the Irish Republican Army. It recounts JFK’s celebrated 1963 visit to Ireland, including the home of his elderly Irish cousin who, unknown to the unwitting White House, had once been a local gunrunner for the IRA’s women’s branch. As former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend explains, the Kennedys’ sense of being Irish Catholics—both as outcasts in Ireland and as “outsiders” in the Brahmin world of Boston—would affect their politics for decades to come.
Though some call them “America’s royalty,” a more apt analogy may be the Irish chieftains of old, the kings of an emerald isle who, according to legend, inspired and led large groups of followers. This book’s title alludes to the “chieftain” notion mentioned by several people who were interviewed, and occasionally by the Kennedys themselves. These qualities emerged first among the Kennedy men who achieved fame and power, but also, tellingly, in recent years with the family’s prominent women. From the broadest vantage, the Kennedy story reminds us of the glories and the limits of America’s melting pot and those histories that paint people from minority groups in familiar “just like us” tones. We gain a better grasp of the Kennedys’ appeal beyond Irish Catholics—to countless other immigrant and minority groups who share a dream of ascendancy in America. In this context, our understanding of the Kennedys becomes richer, more complex and of greater historical significance to what JFK called a nation of immigrants. It recalls how far we’ve progressed as a country since the 1960 election, and yet how many barriers still remain today.
Long Island, New York.